In today’s Guardian, Douglas Alexander has an article entitled ‘Moral outrage is not enough’. Labour, he argues, must not simply express moral outrage about the cuts but have a credible alternative (which, to be credible, will involve accepting some cuts).
This is in part just old-fashioned triangulation. As public opinion moves against the government, perhaps helped along by the emerging anti-cuts movement, Labour sees political opportunity. But in an effort to maximize appeal, Alexander mixes an anti-cuts message with judicious fiscal conservatism. Message: ‘We’re not the nasty party, but we’re not the anti-cuts headbangers either. Come home, dear median voter, to the non-nasty but also fiscally sensible party.’
This is predictable stuff, but there is one issue which Alexander's article neglects which I think is worth more scrutiny.
Yes, ‘moral outrage is not enough’. (As Dave Osler points out, nobody thinks it is 'enough'.) But articulating, focusing and spreading non-violent moral outrage is almost certainly necessary to defeat the Coalition. How far is Labour doing this? How far is it able to do so?
Take the issue of higher education. Was it Labour who made the running in giving voice to, and spreading, moral outrage over fee increases and drastic cuts to higher education? Obviously not. It was the student movement.
Has Labour managed to express effective, moving moral outrage over cuts to benefits? Jon Cruddas has had a very good go, but arguably the running here is being made by people in the affected groups. The most articulate critics of the Coalition’s reforms to disability benefits, for example, include disabled bloggers like BendyGirl, Sue Marsh and Martyn Sibley. BendyGirl helped initiate a new network, The Broken of Britain, which supports these and many other disabled critics of the Coalition.
Who has made the running on tax avoidance? Labour? No, if anyone has managed to raise the salience of this issue in the public’s mind, it has been UKuncut with its protests in Vodafone, Top Shop and other high street outlets. Aaron Peters, of the UCL Occupation, managed to convey more about the injustice of tax avoidance and the unaccountable power of the rich in a few seconds in the video here than any Labour politician I've heard in a very long time ('It's your money, it's that copper's money....We are being fleeced by these oligarchs...')
Or take the issue of universalism in the welfare system. At a recent Fabian Society seminar in London, at which I spoke, some of the participants – Labour participants – argued that Labour had for too long taken the moral case for universalism as given. When the Conservatives challenged the principle of universalism with their plan to withdraw Child Benefit for high earners, Labour consequently did not know how to respond. The party needs to go back and do some basic groundwork – both with itself and with the public – on why universalism matters.
Other Labour participants argued that ‘realism’ requires the party to be flexible and willing to make some tactical retreats on universalism. One side of the debate had the beginnings of moral outrage but did not know how to get the message across. The other side seemed to think moral outrage was impractical, perhaps self-indulgent.
The key fact, which Alexander's op-ed piece tactfully avoids, is that Labour just isn’t really very good right now at moral outrage.
New Labour was a reaction against the idealism of the party’s left. But I think the ferocity of the reaction has left the party confused both about what its underlying ideals are and about how to communicate them.
Labour supports universalism in principle but is also supremely flexible about the issue. Labour opposes inhumane benefit cuts but agrees we should crack down on scroungers. Labour thinks the rich should bear a fair share of the burden of deficit reduction but also doesn’t want tax rates that punish aspiration. Of course, the underlying realities are complex. But Labour’s messages these days are so mixed they self-negate. (I think it was the philosopher J.L. Austin who said: ‘There’s the bit where you say it and the bit where you take it back.’) This is not a basis for voicing or focusing anybody’s moral outrage.
In a different world, the Lib Dems would, of course, scoop up a lot of the moral disaffection about the cuts. But that’s not the world they chose. In a different world, the Greens might channel this disaffection. But that’s a world with a different electoral system, a world we will not get even if the reform party wins the referendum on AV in May.
This is why a non-party/cross-party anti-cuts movement is so important. It gives clear and, at times, eloquent, voice to moral beliefs that don’t find a firm place in ordinary party politics. The movement is complex and fluid and it is anyone’s guess where it will be in a year’s or six month’s time. But the reason I think it – or something like it - is here to stay is that it addresses this problem of the missing moral voice. In the process, it does articulate and spread justified moral indignation at the Coalition’s cuts.
So while senior Labour figures use the political space (arguably) opened up by the anti-cuts movement to triangulate their way forward, Labour's members might also stop and consider why their own party is so bad at expressing and focusing moral outrage - and what they might have to learn from the anti-cuts movement if - if - they want it to do better.